The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia)
Philip Sidney was in his early twenties when he wrote his `Old' Arcadia for the amusement of his younger sister, the Countess of Pembroke. The book, which he called 'a trifle, and that triflingly handled', reflects their youthful vitality.
The `Old' Arcadia tells a romantic story in a manner comparable to that of Shakespeare's early comedies. It is divided into five `Acts', and abounds in lively speeches, dialogues, and quasi-dramatic tableaux. Two young princes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, disguise themselves as an Amazon and a shepherd to gain access to the Arcadian Princesses, who have been taken into semi-imprisonment by their father to avoid the dangers foretold by an oracle.
As a vehicle for Sidney's prophetic ideas about English versification, the `Old' Arcadia also includes over seventy poems in a wide variety of metres and genres. In clarity, symmetry, and coherence the `Old' version is greatly superior both to the ambitious but unfinished `New' Arcadia and the amalgamated, `composite' version, a hybrid monster which Sidney himself never envisaged.
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Katherine Duncan-Jones is a Fellow in English at Somerville College, Oxford. She is the author of Sidney: Courtier Poet (1991); and the editor of Oxford Authors Sidney (1989) and Oxford Poetry Library Sidney (1994).